Americans' trust in the media is at a low point, as the White House routinely reminds journalists.
How can news outlets improve their standing in the eyes of the public? If a study published by Northwestern University in Qatar is any indication, then the key to a higher level of trust might be a lower level of free speech.
Northwestern surveyed seven Middle Eastern countries and found that citizens in six of them ascribe more credibility to their press than Americans do to theirs — by wide margins, in some cases. In the United Arab Emirates, for example, 85 percent of citizens say the media is credible; the rates are 62 percent in Qatar and 59 percent in Saudi Arabia.
Only 32 percent of Americans trust the media to report the news fully, fairly and accurately, according to Gallup.
While these Middle Eastern credibility ratings sound great, they are attended by brutal restrictions on journalists.
Reporters Without Borders rates countries' press freedoms, using such criteria as access to public records, censorship and safety. Out of 180 countries, the United Arab Emirates ranks 119, Qatar ranks 123 and Saudi Arabia ranks 168.
While American journalists have some valid complaints, the United States ranks much higher, 43.
Notice in the side-by-side charts below that the countries with the highest levels of media trust also have some of the worst press freedom ratings.
This is how Reporters Without Borders describes conditions in the United Arab Emirates, where — again — the media's credibility rating is a seemingly enviable 85 percent.
The United Arab Emirates regularly participate in the online surveillance of journalists, who often fall victim to its 2012 cybercrime law. Citizen journalists and bloggers are usually targeted for criticizing the regime, and are accused of defamation, insulting the state, or posting false information with the aim of damaging the country's reputation. They risk long jail terms and are liable to be mistreated in prison. The constitution guarantees free speech but the authorities can censor local or foreign publications if they criticize domestic policies, the economy, the ruling families, religion, or the UAE's relations with its allies under the 1980 law on printed matter and publications.
Northwestern also asked citizens of Middle Eastern countries whether they believe people “should be free to criticize the government on the Internet.” Only 12 percent of Emiratis and 19 percent of Qataris said yes; 49 percent of Saudis said yes, which is markedly higher but nevertheless reflects widespread acceptance of censorship.
I haven't seen the same question posed to Americans in any recent, high-quality poll, but here is a rough analog: When the Pew Research Center asked in February whether the media's freedom to criticize political leaders is important to democracy, 84 percent said yes.
This doesn't mean that a low level of media trust is a good thing, per se. Ideally, the press would enjoy freedom and credibility at the same time.
But the reality is that when the press is free to criticize political leaders — like, say, President Trump — it invariably engenders a measure of distrust from people who are defensive of their favorite politicians and who might be encouraged by said politicians to dismiss any negative coverage as fake news conjured by reporters who don't really love America.
Trump and members of his administration have suggested, at times, that a little less free speech might be a good thing. During the campaign, Trump memorably vowed to “open up” U.S. libel laws and said he prefers the legal standard in England, where it is easier to sue news outlets for defamation.
England isn't exactly Saudi Arabia, of course. Then again, Trump's commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross, sounded a bit jealous of Saudi leaders when he remarked on CNBC, after accompanying the president on a visit to the kingdom in May, that “there was not a single hint of a protester anywhere there during the whole time we were there — not one guy with a bad placard. ... The mood was a genuinely good mood.”
People can be sentenced to death for protesting in Saudi Arabia. But at least they trust their media!
In June, when American reporters devoted extensive coverage to Trump's sexist tweet about MSNBC's Mika Brzezinski, counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway said on Fox News that “the media have now moved on from Russia to cover themselves, and I doubt that's going to help their 14 percent approval rating. The American people see that they're trying to interfere with the president communicating directly through his very powerful social-media network channels.”
Conway cherry-picked a statistic from Gallup that represented only the views of Republicans. As noted above, the overall trust level is 32 percent.
But let's set aside Conway's misleading number. The important thing is her message: If the media would dial back the criticism — if it would stop “trying to interfere” with the president's communications — then perhaps its trust rating would go up.
Conway might be right.